Opinion

Systemic sexism in health care needs to be addressed in the North and beyond

Sarah Frey says the health-care system often silences women, and doctors don't always believe their pain.

Sarah Frey says the health-care system often silences women, and doctors don't always believe their pain

Sarah Frey shares her experiences with health care in Canada, which she calls frustrating for women. 'Whether this issue is another example of systemic sexism, or a disproportionate amount of female doctors, it is far too common a story to remain unexamined.' (Submitted)

As I sat in the waiting room at my new Whitehorse doctor's office waiting to be treated for a mental-health issue, I unfolded the pre-written notes of my symptoms, making sure I wouldn't forget anything in the stress of the appointment.

I hadn't slept in 72 hours, and in order to start my much-needed medical leave from work, I had to get a note from my doctor. Going in, my primary goal was to convince him that my pain was real — an actual treatment plan was secondary.

My relationship with health care in Canada has been frustrating. In university, after showing up to the emergency room with seizure-like symptoms, I was told, "it's probably just your period," followed by, "if it happens again, don't bother coming back." After months of returning with the same symptoms, a neurologist was finally paged, and my long-awaited treatment finally began.

These stories are just symptoms of systemic sexism that still exists in society.- Sarah Frey



This time, I didn't have months to wait. I was sick. I couldn't work. I needed to be on leave. The only thing standing between me and being able to make rent was the opinion of my new doctor.

But I wasn't optimistic. And my concerns were ones that have been echoed by women across North America for years.

Voices silenced

If you ask a group of women, and people on the gender spectrum, about their relationship with doctors, chances are you'll hear stories about how their voices were silenced, and their pain wasn't believed.

Ciara Stick is a Whitehorse resident and a member of the Champagne Aishihik First Nations. When she was 32, she found a lump in her right breast, leading to her diagnosis of Stage 3 breast cancer.

When Ciara Stick was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, she says her doctor in Whitehorse wanted her to have a double mastectomy and would not consider the less invasive option of a lumpectomy. (Sarah Frey)

Ciara says the fly-in surgeon told her he wanted to perform a mastectomy. "And due to my breast size, a double mastectomy."

​While she was determined to beat her cancer, she wanted the opportunity to maintain her quality of life, and asked about a lumpectomy, a procedure where just the cancerous cells are removed. The surgeon said no.

"So I flew to Vancouver, to get a second opinion," she said. "Luckily, I was able to find a female oncologist, who understood my feelings against a mastectomy, and she presented me with a treatment plan that would beat the cancer, and leave me with both of my breasts."

Women's battles to be heard by medical professionals have been described in numerous articles, like Joe Fassler's account in The Atlantic, of his wife's treatment with a dying ovary. The Women's College Hospital has identified the gender-based inequalities in the Canadian health-care system as the Health Gap, saying "many women are overlooked and underserved because health care has traditionally not considered the impact of sex and gender differences."

These inequalities are beyond just women's fights to have their voices heard — issues around access and gender representation in medical testing are still being fought.

More research needed

Kelly Weatherby, a 27-year-old Whitehorse-based nanny, says she was in her second year of university when she became sick.

"When I went to visit the school's health centre, they told me that it was likely a cold, and to just get some rest," shares Kelly.

After weeks of her symptoms not letting up, her doctors began to suggest that she "likely wanted to get out of her exams."

The Women's College Hospital says 'many women are overlooked and underserved because health care has traditionally not considered the impact of sex and gender differences.' (CBC)

When Kelly's pain finally caught a doctor's attention, she was diagnosed with chronic mononucleosis, shingles and gallstones.

Information on this topic is scarce. The Canadian Women's Health Network has been calling for more sex and gender-based analysis in Canadian health-care research for more than a decade, but so far, there isn't much research on the impacts of women's voices being silenced, despite the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence.

Until we understand more about this trend, we have to assume that these stories are just symptoms of systemic sexism that still exists in society.

Positive experience

My experience in Whitehorse was, luckily, a positive one. When the doctor came in, I carefully recited what was happening, and what I needed. I was not expecting his response.

"I'm so sorry this is happening to you," he said. "This is not your fault, and we're going to make sure you get the time you need to heal." My tense shoulders dropped, and I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that I wouldn't again have to go into battle for the validity of my pain.

Sarah Frey says it took a rare positive experience with a doctor to realize that she was conditioned to invest more time in advocating for her own health than in her actual recovery. (Submitted)

It took finally having a doctor believe my pain immediately and respecting my bodily autonomy to realize how rare of an experience it was. I realized how much energy I've been conditioned into investing in my own health advocacy, before investing in my actual recovery.

I also realized that the standard of care that I expected isn't over-reaching. Having basic sympathy and checking your internal biases as a health-care provider is an achievable goal, and may be the start of the solution to just one of many gender-based inequalities in Yukon, Canadian, and North American health care.

Whether this issue is another example of systemic sexism, or a disproportionate amount of female doctors, it is far too common a story to remain unexamined.

To all the female-identified readers: your pain is real, and you are not alone. And to all the doctors reading: why am I the one who is telling them that?

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ. 

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